American Rivers Lists Hackensack River as
One of the Nation’s Most Endangered Rivers
By Hugh Carola
(Washington, DC)— On April 11, an important but sobering milestone was reached in the ongoing story of the Hackensack River. At simultaneous press events in Washington DC and Secaucus, NJ, Hackensack Riverkeeper and American Rivers, the national conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring America's rivers, declared the Hackensack River to be one of the thirteen most endangered rivers in the United States. The announcement came as part of the release of American Rivers’ 16th annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report, which exposes threats and mobilizes action to protect and restore locally and nationally significant rivers.
The nation's leading river conservation organization pointed to the rapidly escalating development pressure that threatens both to destroy a significant portion of the Meadowlands and increase pollution entering reservoirs that supply drinking water for one million people. American Rivers and Hackensack Riverkeeper call upon federal, state and local authorities to stop the development pressures looming in the Meadowlands and to stem the tide of sprawl in the upper watershed.
“Even in this urban area, poorly planned development can damage natural resources that people and wildlife depend on,” said American Rivers President Rebecca Wodder. "Do we really need more pavement in New York and New Jersey?”
“The short answer to Rebecca’s question is ‘No,’” responded Captain Bill Sheehan.
As Tidelines readers know, the Hackensack River winds south from Rockland County, New York, into New Jersey where it empties into Newark Bay. The river's estuary – the Meadowlands -- is the last large block of open space in this densely populated region. As such, the Meadowlands supports a remarkable diversity and concentration of birds, fish, and other animal life, including 65 species of nesting birds and 50 species of fish and shellfish. The National Marine Fisheries Service has officially designated the Meadowlands as Essential Fish Habitat.
Despite those facts, development pressure is unrelenting: the Virginia-based Mills Corporation (with the active assistance of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission) continues to push its plan for a mega-mall and office complex on more than 200 acres of wetlands. The ill-conceived project also calls for the transformation of 300 more acres into stormwater detention basins (A plan strongly opposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency). Mills cannot move forward unless it receives a permit to fill/alter the wetlands from the US Army Corps of Engineers. During the preparation of a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the development last fall, the Corps received 9,000 public comments – 85% of which strongly objected to the plan.
"Let’s face it; the Meadowlands is the premier open space asset in the New York metropolitan area”, said Capt. Bill, “Where else can a person who lives in Hudson County, southern Bergen County or New York City come just a short distance from home and see dozens of egrets wading in the marsh, diamondback terrapins sunning themselves on the riverbank or watch an osprey dive on a fish?”
Development pressure is also mounting in the upper reaches of the river and the forested buffers that historically surrounded the drinking water reservoirs are disappearing. In some places the buffers have been reduced to strips only 50 feet wide. United Properties Group, the real estate arm of United Water New Jersey continues to market these lands for development and take legal action against those municipalities that have the “nerve” to try and preserve these remnant forests. If allowed to continue, the loss and fragmentation of more riverside habitat will result in more polluted stormwater and runoff reaching the reservoirs, threatening the quality and quantity of drinking water for over one million people.
"The next time it rains, look at what flows into the gutters," Wodder said. "That's what will end up in the drinking water reservoirs for a million New Jersey residents if we don't protect those forest buffers at the headwaters and upper reaches of the Hackensack River." Already, tons of floatable debris are removed annually from streams feeding directly into United Water’s reservoirs.
American Rivers has joined Hackensack Riverkeeper in urging Federal, State, and local agencies to exercise their authority to prevent further damaging development and to strengthen protection of the Hackensack River and the Meadowlands. In particular, the groups recommended:
· The Army Corps of Engineers should heed the concerns that local citizens and federal and state agencies and deny the permit for the Mills’ proposed shopping center development in the wetlands;
· If the long-stalled Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) must be resurrected, then the EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, HMDC, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection should finalize the SAMP with the primary goal of conserving -- not developing – the Meadowlands;
· The long-delayed Environmental Impact Statement on the SAMP should be revived and completed through an open and public process. The agencies involved in developing the SAMP should set an explicit standard of allowing development only if it can be demonstrated to be compatible with protecting the estuary;
· The remaining Meadowlands marshes should be given some form of permanent protection by federal and/or state agencies; and
· Local communities along the upper Hackensack River's remaining forest buffers should act to protect the habitat that protects their drinking water. Riparian forests and other existing open space tracts within the watershed should be protected through such methods as land purchase, conservation easements, and development setbacks.
It is important to note that in 1996, American Rivers listed the Hackensack as “Threatened”. Well, it’s five years later and our river is worse off now than it was then. That’s a very sad commentary on a state that prides itself on being an environmental leader. But that’s what you get when that very same state places the fate of an entire ecosystem into the hands of a development commission.
On another level, this year’s listing of the Hackensack River is a testimony to the esteem in which our watershed is held its people. For without caring and concerned people, the folks at American Rivers would have never heard of the Hackensack and Riverkeeper would be little more than a lonely voice crying in an ever-shrinking wilderness.